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The Science of Movement 

From Parkinson's to obesity, the School of Kinesiology is using exercise as a prescription to make a difference in people’s lives.

May 14, 2014

In the dim light of a School of Kinesiology lab, infrared light-sensitive tape glows on a dozen points of a subject’s body, like stars of a constellation. While she moves, these anatomical landmarks are tracked 200 times per second, appearing on a screen behind her.

The camera system in the Human Sensorimotor Control Laboratory in Cooke Hall can capture nearly any human movement in 3D. The data are used to reconstruct the biomechanical details of human motion—for example, how children learn a new motor skill, or how patients with neurological disease perform and regain function after treatment.

Parkinson’s is one of the lab’s major areas of research. Hallmarks of the disease include abnormal slowness, tremor, or rigid muscles—symptoms that arise because dopamine-producing cells in the midbrain die. Many sensorimotor areas of the brain rely on dopamine to communicate. Today it is accepted that moderate, aerobic exercise may benefit Parkinson’s patients.

“The big question is whether exercise induces positive changes to the brain and, ideally, even has a neuro-protective effect,” says professor and lab director Jürgen Konczak. “Could it be that, if you exercise at a certain level, the dopamine-producing cells are protected from dying, or die at a lower rate?”

Rather than focusing on exercise interventions, Konczak and his lab focus on the link between sensory and motor systems to develop behavioral treatments for Parkinson’s. The rationale comes from research in which the lab documented that movement disorders such as Parkinson’s or dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions) are associated with decreased precision in perceiving the motion or position of one’s body. To translate this knowledge into useful tools for rehabilitation, Konczak is collaborating with engineers and neuroscientists in Italy and Singapore to develop robotic devices that can provide sensorimotor training for patients.

“The idea behind this approach is that improved body awareness leads to a better movement outcome,” he explains. “In other words: If we train the senses, will the movement get better?”

Kinesiology evolves

Konczak’s lab is just one of a dozen in the School of Kinesiology, where researchers work on everything from Parkinson’s to cystic fibrosis research.

“It’s not just a bunch of guys with whistles in the School of Gym,” Konczak says. “Kinesiology is not what people expect.”

Indeed, the field now includes biomechanics, sports medicine and psychology, sociology, recreation, sport management, and physical education.

Exercise is medicine

“Exercise is medicine,” says professor and School of Kinesiology director Li Li Ji. “Life depends on movement.”

As populations in many countries become more sedentary, Ji’s statement has become a slogan, not just to describe much of the school’s research but also to encourage people to change their lifestyle.

Ji’s research team studies how ordinary oxygen can become the free-radical kind that causes diseases such as atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, and age-related muscle atrophy (sarcopenia), and how regular exercise can relive such problems by stimulating antioxidant defense systems in the body. Recently he developed a technique for boosting gene expression of enzymes in muscle tissue that enhance antioxidant defense.

Across the street, professor Don Dengel gets a lot of visitors in the Laboratory of Integrative Human Physiology. They come to learn his flow-induced dilation method used to measure blood flow through a particular body part such as an arm or leg muscle, its response to a diseased state, and differences between gender and age.

Dengel has found that exercise can modify vascular dysfunction in obese children. He, too, seeks to use exercise as a prescription.

From the lab to the world

Translational research—the process of turning research into things people can use—is growing in biomedicine. The drive to apply research and make a difference in people’s lives is at the core of the U’s School of Kinesiology.

If human movement is the thread that runs through the research in all its labs, movement forward is exactly what the School of Kinesiology itself is doing.

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Adapted from Connect magazine, a publication of the College of Education and Human Development. Read the complete story.

At top: 
U of M postdoctoral researcher Joshua Aman attaches infrared light-sensitive tape to a research subject's body in the Human Sensorimotor Control Lab. 
Photo Credit:
Dawn Villella

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